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Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits

PUBLISHED: 09:41 24 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:13 20 February 2013

Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits

Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits

Martyn Baguley investigates the danger facing one of our most endearing wild animals

Rabbits will be affected by global warming you know. My friend revelled in making controversial and legpulling statements, so I didnt rise to the bait at the time. But his words nagged at me so eventually I googled Rabbits and Climate Change. And there it was, an article in the prestigious publication New Scientist: Climate change could spread a lethal plague that would wreak havoc among Britains rabbit population. Rabbit haemorrhagic disease, first recognised in China in 1984, is a highly contagious virus that has a 90 per cent mortality rate in infected animals. Death usually occurs in 1-3 days. When the virus escaped due to a laboratory accident in southern Australia in 1995, it killed some 10 million rabbits in eight weeks. It has been present in wild rabbits in Britain since 1994, mainly in the warmer south, but some experts believe that global warming could see its effects spreading north.

Poor little things; first myxomatosis that killed 99 per cent of our rabbits when it arrived in Britain in 1953, now rabbit haemorrhagic disease. I know that they damage agricultural crops, browse young trees and their burrows can cause subsidence problems, but they are not all bad news: rabbit grazing can help to maintain calcareous grassland, dunes and heathland habitats.

Originally, the word for an adult rabbit was coney or cony, rabbit being the name given to the young animals. The word rabbit, however, came to be adopted for both adult and young animals during the 19th century. More recently the term kit has been used to refer to a young rabbit. A group of young rabbits is referred to as a kindle.

The origin of the name bunny or bunny rabbit, especially when referring to young, domesticated rabbits, is obscure. Bun was an English dialect word, recorded from the sixteenth century, for a squirrel or rabbit. The word seems to have evolved into bunny in the following century, possibly in recognition of the animals endearing characters, and then become focused on the rabbit.

Superstitions about rabbits, and also hares, are many and varied and go back to very early times when they were regarded as symbolic of the moon god because they played at night time. I bet that on Rabbit Day the first day of the month many readers make the words Rabbits, Rabbits, Rabbits (or variants like White Rabbits) the first they say aloud, early in the morning, to ensure that a month of good luck will follow. I was taught to follow the words with a wish: was that a local variant? A rabbits hind foot is a longestablished, world-wide good luck charm. One explanation for this is that the animals strong hind legs touch the ground ahead of its front ones; an unusual way for an animal to walk. To our ancestors this was considered so remarkable that they ascribed magical powers to their hind feet.

Pests to some they may be but personally I hope that my grandchildren, and their children, will always be able to see some rabbits bobbing around the countryside. We can be optimistic after all they survived myxomatosis but perhaps we can help them by remembering our bunnies in our next Rabbit Day wish. Sorry Im rabbitting on*.

Cockney rhyming slang: Rabbit and Pork = Talk.

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